Shokuiku: A Healthy Awareness of Food
These days, Japan's current focus is on shokuiku: the study of the relationship between food, society and individuals; or put more simply, food education. Shokuiku is best introduced at a young age, and the country's schools have already begun a number of initiatives. School nutritionists are taking the lead, as they are responsible not only for school lunches, but for improving food education in collaboration with families and communities. One Kindergarten near Tokyo is introducing its students to the wonders of cooking for themselves: according to the director, "We are endeavoring . . . to show them the great joy in making something."
A curious group of fourth-graders are asked how soy sauce is made. "Soybeans, wheat, salt!" one child calls out. The instructor produces three containers of moromi, a dry mash produced by adding special seed starter to soybeans, wheat and salt water. The containers reveal moromi in its progressive stages of fermentation at one, three and six months. Smelling the rich dark-brown, six-month-old moromi, one student cries, "Smells funny!"
These children are finding out for the first time how soy sauce is created, thanks to a unique program on Japanese traditional food culture sponsored by Kikkoman. These classes were inspired by a popular program established by Kikkoman at one of its plants, where students are introduced to the mysteries of soy sauce.
Why this sudden spotlight on food? Japan's reputation as having the world's longest life expectancy is under threat as the country faces an unprecedented rise in diet-related illnesses such as obesity and diabetes. The traditional healthy Japanese diet is no longer prevalent—particularly among the younger generation. Poor eating habits, dieting-obsession and unbalanced nutrition are obvious culprits, but a sense also remains that there is a simple lack of respect for food.
This summer, the government enacted the Basic Law for Shokuiku (Food Education), intending to "comprehensively and systematically implement food education to ensure that people are able to maintain physical and mental health throughout their lives and to enable humanity to reach higher levels."
The new Shokuiku Law identifies a number of issues to be addressed in both the public and private sectors, domestically as well as internationally. These are expected to encourage individuals and organizations to re-examine issues of diet and nutrition and to participate in food education activities not only at a grassroots level (home, school and community) but at a higher level that includes food-related businesses, producers and educational organizations.
In fact, in a remarkably short amount of time, the new law has already prompted a number of educational initiatives by food service businesses and food manufacturers. Kikkoman's program is one such project; another company has launched a nationwide program where nearly 6,000 elementary and junior high school students are raising vegetables from seed; successful harvests to date have yielded eggplants, tomatoes and peppers. The ultimate goal is to help students appreciate the importance of food and develop a respect for nature as they observe the growth cycle of plants. Other recently introduced company-sponsored school programs involve learning to milk cows and make butter. Some fast-food companies have even stepped up to the challenge with special food education websites and classes on fast-food nutrition.
Some professional chefs have also joined the movement. One of these, a celebrated Japanese chef with 30 years of experience, is visiting elementary schools across the country to present classes on food and taste, letting children experience the various facets of food made from traditional ingredients.
Through the efforts of business, individuals and communities, it is hoped that Japan's children may come to better understand the relationship between food, its sources and their society. In doing so, their own future health looks much more promising.